2016-10-27 / Views

Prosecutor sends Open Meetings message, but was it heard?

our opinion

A report released by a special prosecutor appointed to investigate an Open Meetings Act violation complaint made by one county commissioner against another should serve as a guideline for others.

At least that’s what should happen. Judging from reactions we’ve heard so far, though, there’s been some confusion as to whether an Open Meetings Act violation occurred at all.

The special prosecutor left no doubt, however, in stating that the OMA had been broken. We agree with his determination not to seek charges. The act requires that “intent” be proven to prosecute a violation, and that’s a high bar to reach.

And the person who would be prosecuted, county commissioner Patricia Soutas-Little, has been a dedicated public servant. A message was needed that automatically did not end her career.

We’d feel better, however, if we had been given some evidence that the message was heard.

The report puts all public officials who belong to a board, committee or commission on notice that they break state law when choosing to deliberate privately on issues that will come before them.

Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Robert Cooney drew that line in his report, which catalogued phone calls made by Ms. Soutas-Little to three other commissioners to discuss the expected appointment of Kasson Township resident Anthony Forton to the county Parks and Recreation Commission.

Wrote Cooney, “Soutas-Little discussed Forton’s appointment, a matter of public policy, with a constructive quorum of commissioners. Although Soutas-Little claims that she did not intend to influence the other commissioners’ votes on the matter, the evidence suggests otherwise. The information Soutas-Little’s intent conveyed to the other commissioners was that Forton was considered a ‘troublemaker’ by some, and that the Parks Commission had voted unanimously not to appoint Forton.

“There can be little doubt that such discussion was intended to de-rail Forton’s appointment to the Park’s Commission.”

That’s black and white.

Such discussions must be held during open meetings because constituents have a right to know more than the vote tally on a given issue. Citizens should also have an opportunity to view democracy in progress, and to participate in that process through public comment held at meetings.

To simply turn our heads in this case is to say planning commissioners can decide rezonings over lunch and a series of phone calls can dictate pay raises for public officials. It’s a slippery slope.

Public officials found to have intentionally violated the state Open Meetings Act are guilty of a misdemeanor and may be fined up to $1,000. A second violation can result in a one-year sentence and a fine of $2,000.

Those are fates unbefitting of Ms. Soutas-Little, a consummate volunteer for numerous nonprofits. She continues to do much to better her community. She’s an upstanding citizen.

But she is not above the law.

A couple apologies later, and that would be the end of the story — and this commentary would be written in a completely different context. But that’s not what Ms. Soutas-Little offered in her statement about the decision, in which she continued to call the whole episode an “alleged” open meeting act violation as though it was simply a misunderstanding.

She wrote, “There was never any intent to influence a vote in private, only an attempt to discover all the facts prior to voting on an appointment. I always have and will continue to seek facts in order to make informed decisions.”

An apology to Mr. Forton would also seem appropriate. He’s not an enemy of county parks, as has been portrayed.

But there were no apologies given — to anyone.

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